Looking Back with Pride

I came to Israel in 1989. After twenty five years in the wine trade here, and I think it timely to look back at the progress since then. Certainly a revolution took root and Israel began to produce world class wines.


One of the major changes has been in winery names. Back in 1989, Carmel Mizrahi, WEST- Stock, Eliaz, Efrat, Askalon – Carmei Zion and Baron featured.  Today these wineries are known by other names, which will be far more familiar:  Carmel Winery, Barkan, Binyamina, Teperberg, Segal & Tishbi. 


There have also been massive changes in the ownership of wineries. WEST went bankrupt, and was reincarnated under new owners as Barkan. The Segal family sold their Askalon-Carmei Zion operation to Barkan, who in turn were sold to Tempo, Israel’s largest brewery. Binyamina went through a few owners before being bought by the supermarket chain, Hezi Hinam. Carmel, a co-operative for 107 years, was purchased by a consortium of private investors.


Then there were a maximum of twenty or so wineries. Today there are more than 300 and many more garagistes and domestic wineries. Back in 1989, there was just one large winery. Carmel had no less than 75% of Israeli wine production. The cellars at Rishon Le Zion and Zichron Ya'acov were by far the two largest wineries in Israel. Today, three large wineries, Carmel, Barkan and the Golan Heights, together account for nearly 70% of the wine market.


In the last fifteen years, the large wineries have all invested in new wineries and renovated existing wineries. Carmel built boutique wineries at Ramat Dalton (Kayoumi Winery) & Tel Arad (Yatir Winery) and refurbished its Zichron Ya'acov Winery. Now the historic Rishon Le Zion Winery is to be closed, and a brand new winery is being built at Alon Tabor.


Barkan built a new winery at Hulda, next to the largest vineyard in the country & Golan Heights Winery planted a leg in the Upper Galilee, with a winery called Galil Mountain at Kibbutz Yiron. Teperberg built a new winery at Tzora and Binyamina refurbished its existing winery.


Out of the top 10 wineries by size today, five of them did not exist in 1989, but the biggest change has been in the boom of boutique wineries.

Yonatan Tishbi was the first grower to decide to make his own wine instead of supplying the large wineries. In this sense he was a trend setter, because many other growers in the 1990's followed suit. Most of the new boutique wineries either belonged to vineyard owners like Tishbi or were simply self-taught domestic winemakers, like Eli Ben Zaken of Castel.


There were only two boutique wineries in 1989, Meron and Margalit, but they

heralded the growth of small wineries in the 1990’s, which has accelerated in the 2000's. Some like Castel gained a worldwide reputation. Others like Dalton & Tzora, and later Tabor, started small & grew very fast.


The most positive change has been the new pursuit of quality. In 1989 all the main wineries, apart from the Golan Heights Winery, sold sacramental wines, spirits & liqueurs as well as table wines. Today wineries are far more focused on wine.


Efrat & Eliaz, (now Teperberg & Binyamina), were selling mainly sweet wines to an almost exclusive religious clientele. Today they are producing good quality table wines. Zion and Arza are two other traditional wineries with a long history that twenty five years ago barely sold any table wines. They too have made impressive strides in the last 5 to 6 years.

The biggest turn around was Carmel which went through a quality transformation. I don't believe there is one winery that existed in 1989 that does not make better quality wine today.


When I arrived here, Israel's finest wines were the Carmel Special Reserves of 1976 and 1979, Israel's first international style wines and Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon 1984 & 1985, Israel's first award winning wines at the highest level. The leading quality labels were Rothschild and Yarden. Askalon (Segal) was known for its reds and innovative labels and Baron (Tishbi) for its clean fresh whites.


The market was weighted towards white wines. The largest selling wines were Selected Emerald Riesling and Carmel Grenache Rose. Selected remains the largest selling brand in Israel as it was then, but the largest selling wines today are Hermon Red, Selected Cabernet Sauvignon, Selected Merlot and Segal Red. Red wine dominates.


Fantasia was then a well-known brand of fun and flavored wines. Today the Moscato craze has taken its place. Brandy, in particular Stock 84 and 777 were extremely popular then. The youth of today prefer vodka or whiskey.


In the eighties only the Golan Heights Winery was winning major awards in international competition. Export was confined to Carmel and the Golan. Today many, many more Israeli wineries are exporting and winning prizes around the world.


In 1989, Mount Carmel and the Judean Shefela were by far the largest wine growing regions. These days, the fastest growing vineyard areas are the Golan Heights, the Upper Galilee and the Judean Foothills. The Golan and Galilee is already the largest wine region in the country.


The main grape varieties then were Carignan and French Colombard, which comprised 61% of the harvest in 1989.  By 2013 their contribution had shrunk to 22%. They were replaced by the noble, classic varieties.


In the 1980's Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc were the main varieties for quality wines, but quantities were small. Merlot and Chardonnay had just arrived and Shiraz and Gewurztraminer were to come later on. Today Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz rule.


Funnily enough, Israeli wine was built on the bricks of Mediterranean varieties, but the wine revolution occurred on the back of Bordeaux varieties. Today Mediterranean varieties are coming back in, as well as white wines.


Stylistically red wines are becoming more elegant and less bombastic whilst white wines are becoming lighter and fresher.


In 1989 only the Golan Heights Winery had internationally trained winemakers. These initially were Americans, who studied at the University of California at Davis. 

By 2014 most of the commercial wineries & the better small wineries had internationally trained winemakers. Not only this, but they were all Israelis, who had traveled abroad to study & gain experience.  Another difference is that the place of study is not only California today, but also Australia, France, Italy and New Zealand.


In 1989 most of the country’s wine was sold in supermarkets and dusty kiosks. The shelves were untidy and old vintages of oxidized white wines prominent. There were a few pioneers like Super Drink in Ramat Hasharon, Avi Ben in Jerusalem and Israel Assayel’s shop in Rehovot. In the 1990’s, Derech Ha’Yayin opened, and now it seems as though every medium sized town has its own wine shop. Many have more than one!


There were barely any imports in 1989. The wines that did arrive were almost exclusively for duty free or diplomats. There were hardly any imported wines in restaurants and none in supermarkets. By 2014, up to 20% of the market was imported wine. Many of the world’s most famous international brands are now sold in Israel and the supermarket shelves are groaning with imported kosher wines from countries like France, Italy, Chile & Argentina.


In 1989 there was one famous restaurant with a truly international wine list. This was the legendary Mishkenot Sha’ananim Restaurant in Jerusalem’s Yemin Moshe. It had arguably the best cellar in the Middle East, however elsewhere it was a wine desert.


Thirty years ago, Bernard Levin of the London Times, moaned on visiting Israel: "Doesn't anyone here have a Jewish mother?", because the food was so bad. He would not be so disappointed today.  There are hundreds of quality restaurants with quality wine lists. The culinary and wine awakening happened at the same time.


We should not beat our chests and claim we have arrived. France and Italy need not worry. The point is not that we are so good, but we are on an exciting journey. Compare where we were twenty five years ago and where we are today, and the progress is impressive. Let’s hope the upward curve continues.